OCTOBER 25—“Yeah,” shouted Paul O’Neill, sarcasm dripping like boysenberry syrup at the local IHOP. Then the grizzled slugger threw up his hands in disgust, as if an umpire had just punched him out on a 3-2 fastball. It wasn’t much more than an hour before game time at Shea, and the Yankee right fielder couldn’t find a place to play long toss for all the scene makers.
Exhibit A: Spike Lee wearing a Derek Jeter jersey, perched behind the batting cage, holding a palm-size Sony camcorder. Exhibit B: Spike’s subjects—Reggie Jackson canoodling with Keith Hernandez and Mets manager Bobby Valentine, while Leroy Niemann looked on. The Monet of the jockstrap set had his own take on the hubbub. He had just finished sketching a quick pen and ink of Don Zimmer and Billy Connors, sitting Buddha-like on the Yankee bench, identifiable only because of their ample girth. “Two heavyweights of the baseball world,” he laughed.
Even the Yankees’ biggest scene maker was taken aback by the crowd. Wearing a navy Hall of Fame windbreaker and a pair of World Series rings, George Steinbrenner eased out of the Yankee dugout uneasily. “Should Clemens be suspended?” shouted a reporter. Quoteless for once, the Boss slipped into a temporary box seat behind home plate, happily plunking himself down in a chair reserved for a “Guest of Frank Robinson.” Happy, that is, until he realized he had essentially cornered himself in a Plexiglass fishbowl with but a single exit. “I just want to watch batting practice before the ball game,” he mimed, mouthing the words Rocket-style.
As Steinbrenner summoned his bodyguards and made his way silently to the edge of the batting cage, and the p.a. system blared a Hammond organ version of “New York State of Mind,” the Met fans conducted their own version of pregame warmups. “Polonia, you stink.” “We’re gonna win tonight. We’re gonna win tomorrow night. We’re gonna win…um, Thursday night.” “Justice…beat your wife.” But the locals did nothing to disrupt the on-field lovefest. Sprung from ground-ball duty, Chuck Knoblauch happily agreed to swap batting helmets with a Mets-clad Meredith Viera (would he have done the same for Starr Jones?). “I haven’t sweated in it yet,” he assured the producer. With the cameras rolling, the tiny black-and-royal novelty helmet barely covered Chuck’s spiky do, but he continued bantering with the good humor of a guy about to three-peat. “It looks good on you,” Knoblauch bantered as his own game-worn helmet swallowed Viera’s coiff. “Really.”